Mama's, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Libertarians

Vivian Liddell, an Athens artist with a beautiful career in art under her belt, interviewed me for her budding new podcast, Peachy Keen.  As a native Southerner herself, she plans to create a collection of recordings featuring women discussing art and the South.  I loved speaking with Vivian about the changing landscape of small town America, "coming out" as maybe a libertarian in college, questioning religion as a Southern Belle, and being intimidated by the Atlanta students at UGA. 

Somewhere--through "um," "okay," and "yeah"--you might find the gist of my life thus far as an artist.  I also announced the opening of an exhibit I am proud to be co-curating at Trio Contemporary Gallery!  Nasty Women Athens opens June 30, 2017!

PEACHY KEEN, MARCH 15, 2017: MELISSA LEE

by Vivian Liddell

by Vivian Liddell

How Do We Stay Curious?

Back in April, Stephen Hawking spoke via 3D hologram at the Sydney Opera House.  Take a moment for that to sink in. Stephen Hawking, a man suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease since his diagnosis as a 21-year-old in 1963, spoke by controlling a computer with a single cheek muscle.  He was located at Cambridge University in the UK, and a 3-Dimensional hologram was transmitted across the globe to the Sydney Opera House.  A man who was given the life expectancy of living until 23 touched over 5,000 lives via computer technology, science, and immeasurable will-power.  He spoke of black hole radiation, parallel universes, and curiosity; he answered questions with grace and a slice of wit.  Are you not inspired yet?  Is it possible to not be inspired yet?  The statement that left a mark on me is as follows:

Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes a universe exist. Be curious.

Be curious.  I reflect on my childhood.  The umpire for my hometown's local t-ball league nicknamed me "Questioness" because I asked him a question at every bat.  What would happen if I ran this way?  Can I go ahead and go to second base; that seems shorter?  Why do we only have three strikes? Why are my team colors gold and black? The list went on... For two years, I asked Mr. Burgess questions about the game.  He gave me the ball from my last bat on that field, and my athletic career ended shortly there after.  I wasn't quite meant for sports.

Trying to keep our childlike curiosity is a well-known inspirational theme of adulthood.  We graduate from some level of schooling and eventually feel like we know enough to make things happen.  But it's so important that we don't allow ourselves to stop learning after graduation.  We are perpetual pupils. We have to stay curious.  Stephen Hawking is quite literally a genius due to his ridiculous relentlessness.  He has topped the charts in what we "thought" could happen for him, and on a larger scale what we "thought" about the universe.  There is so much more to know, and we must continue to recognize that we don't yet understand the limits of life. 

So how do we stay curious?  How do we continue to keep our eyes on the stars?  Hawking finished with this:

And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t give up.

Your success is defined by what you think is successful, and there is something that you are successful at.  The scale is relative.  Hawking has certainly made many a failure; I've made many, many a failure... We have to divert our thoughts to make sense of those failures.  We have to raise our hand and keep asking questions.  If no one hears you, wave it around and shout.  If no one can answer it, see that as your opportunity to explore it.  You're already halfway there just by noticing there was a question to be asked. 

How Can I Become a Dancing Star?

"Oh my god, I'm having an existential crisis!  Like, what am I even doing here!?"  This is an all-too-common hyperbole that is often followed by "I can't even" and "this is the worst."  As an all-too-common Millennial myself, I embarrassingly think these more than I should.  I overreact and assume I am the only one going through this angst.  I am such a troubled artist, I think.  If only I didn't feel so much.

Woe. Is. Me.

It's come to my attention that I'm letting my despair define me.  As somewhat of an existentialist, this is troubling.  I feel that I'm in control of my essence and what I can bring to the world.  It's my responsibility to make my life and time here matter; it's not on any religious or political terms.  I have the ability to be moral, kind, and inspiring on my own.  I want to act as independently and consciously as possible, while understanding that the physical world and the way I've chosen to interact with it have, in fact, affected my perceptions of... well, everything.  I know that technically I can do the things I want.  But this freedom--this freedom gives me an overwhelming sense of breathlessness.  It's scary to feel responsible for your freedom.  It's hopeless to feel like you're not being the person you've defined for yourself.

How do we bring ourselves out of existential despair?  How do we reach the ever-coveted authenticity we seek as individuals?  Heaven forbid, what if it takes someone else to help pull this authenticity to the surface?  How do you define yourself then?

How do we make the creative chaotic energy that is the beginning of ourselves--the beginning of this universe--explode into a dancing star?

For me, I guess it's back to the canvas.

*Due credit to Friedrich Nietzche and my college professors who forced me to read his jibber-jabber.

Am I Making Art or Craft?

Art (via Merriam-Webster)

  • something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings
  • works created by artists : paintings, sculptures, etc., that are created to be beautiful or to express important ideas or feelings

Craft (via Merriam-Webster)

  • an activity that involves making something in a skillful way by using your hands
  • a job or activity that requires special skill

I have a beef with these definitions, namely "to be beautiful" and "created by artists." Many artworks are purposefully created to be what we consider "ugly" for the sake of urging the viewer to question the word "beautiful." Also, "beautiful" is a subjective term that varies from culture to culture; it seems a bit silly to use such a word in a definition.  "Created by artists" forms two different camps:  1. those who believe everyone is an artist in their own right, and 2. those who believe certain training, natural talent, or knowledge of art is required.

Just think on those things...

Now welcome to my world.

While trying to elevate my art from hobby to a part-time job status, I come across many call for artists and residency posts.  I would be thrilled to receive a nod from either of these, but I find that my idea and work doesn't make the cut.  I'm not doing anything particularly cutting-edge or controversial, but I'm not painting hydrangeas or landscapes of Georgia's coast.  I'm painting works that exercise my stroke quality, composition, and color theory.  My works just make me feel good.  It's fairly selfish.  I'd categorize the pieces as expressionism, and I realize this is nothing avant-garde for 2015.  Current artists in "emerging artist" galleries are breaking the mold with something political, inspiring, or just flat out LARGE in scale. They have something to say about the world they're living in, and it's thought provoking and exciting.  It has to be loud to be seen.  I, unfortunately, am not loud... in more ways than one.

Perhaps if I was better at explaining that I see the human race as a body of individually emotive creatures that all come from the same stuff, no matter the social status or spot on the globe we call home... Maybe then I could be seen as more creative, and not just a painter?  In my mind, we're all atoms and energy.  We all have complex, colorful, infinite stuff inside that can be seen as beautiful or terrifying.  Or every other descriptor.  We don't have words to describe each and every combination of feelings that make an emotion, and we don't have words to explain the infinite amount of stuff the Earth is floating amongst.  The possibilities for each are endless.

I also have the strong sense of keeping traditions alive (see my previous post on Southern-ness).  Handmade items intrigue me: paintings, quits, pottery, dark room photography... there is something honest and human about making things with your hands, and I gravitate to that.  Human scale, human made.  When did we have to be so extreme to be noticed?

If I have this idea that means something to me, and I paint it out as an exercise of my skill ... Is it art or craft

WHAT AM I DOING?

What is Happiness?

I recently had the pleasure of discussing life with my roommate, Anna, over a Folk Art lunch.  Anna is an analytical thinker--a pharmacist; however, she's always craved new and creative things.  This is where we align as great friends.  When in college, Anna's mindset was considerably more practical than mine when it came to choosing a major.  In this moment, her happiness was a secure future with a well-paying job.  Following this goal, she successfully graduated with a PharmD and now works at a major company treating hundreds of patients a day.  She has a steady, comfortable income.  She also works long shifts on her feet without a lunch break.  She deals with rude patients who are ultimately mad at their insurance company, doctor, or themselves for being dependent on a drug, but Anna is the bearer of bad news.  Her company is so structurally managed that every task is timed by a computer--with no regard to patient consultation time or a simple bathroom break.  The silver lining: she is paid well. Anna is a twenty-something who has the luxury of living wherever she wants in the city.  She can shop at nice shops and treat herself to dinner at the week's hippest restaurant.  She's also saving.  After a mere three-years, she's beginning to wonder, is she really happy?

Contrast this to my life.  At 18, I was a starry-eyed art major ready to change the world.  I wanted to learn in a liberal arts environment where I experienced criticism and solved problems on my own terms.  I thought that with this ability, I could find a job at a museum, arts organization, or educational institution.  I'd successfully spread my love for the arts because I cared about the way our society experienced culture, and I cared deeply.  After graduating with a masters jobless, moving home to "volunteer for more experience," and grinding through a spreadsheet of job postings, my starry eyes faded.  A few months in without opportunities--stars were nonexistent.  I took a low-paying job in an unrelated field.  I was honestly thrilled because someone had taken the time to interview me.  After being told that my degrees and internship experience were not applicable in my salary negotiation, I felt as if I had made all the wrong moves.  I was a young person on a mission to do something that mattered, and it seemed like the system had failed me.  I can't tell you how many times I thought "I should have just majored in business."  Soon I began to feel like it wasn't the system.  I was the failure.  I certainly was not happy, and little has changed as I continue to search for a paying job that suits my talents.

Yet, after a few years watching my business peers move from cubicle to cubicle just for a higher paycheck, I wonder if their menial, but handsomely secure, jobs make them happy?  Certainly some people are meant to be in these 9-5 roles, right?  But what if you aren't?  And what is the stigma making creatives less worthy of compensation?  Overall, has my generation been born into a time when our expectations of happiness are simply the expectations of our Baby Boomer parents'?  Or are we just spoiled idealists?  If it's the former, at what point do we realize that appeasing our elders might not be the way to our own happiness or the happiness of future generations?  If it's the latter, how do we fix ourselves?

If a secure, salaried job with health insurance and a big house was the definition of success for the previous generation, how will we define success and happiness for ours? 

How can we all be happier?